What Our Kids Get from Giving
Children who help others learn to recognize their own strengths.
Children with ADHD are used to being on the receiving end. They get extra help at school, as well as assistance from tutors, therapists, and doctors. Now some schools are giving them a chance to be on the other end-and finding that it imparts some valuable lessons.
At Odyssey School in Austin, Texas, a fourth-through-ninth grade school for children with learning differences, including ADHD, community service is an important part of the curriculum. Each year, Odyssey’s 50 students select five local organizations to assist. Recently, we spoke with the school’s director, Nancy Wolf, to find out why pitching in is such a powerful learning tool.
We all want our children to be good citizens. How does volunteering address their special needs?
For children with learning problems, the emphasis is usually on what they can’t do. At Odyssey, we teach our students to focus on their strengths and accept their differences.
Our service learning program allows them to use their skills in the world beyond school, and gets them thinking about how they might contribute to that world. Throughout the program they’re asked to practice self-awareness-beginning with choosing which community group to help. We ask each child to consider: Which organization would be a good match for me? Where can I be the most helpful, and where can I learn the most?
Sometimes, we discover unsuspected talents among our students. One boy, whose extreme hyperactivity often irritated his classmates, showed astonishing patience as he tutored a hearing-impaired boy at a local public school.
In addition to working at that school, our students are serving as tour guides at an outdoor historical museum, helping to clean Austin’s creeks, socializing shelter animals before adoption, and caring for miniature horses at Hearts and Hooves, an organization that uses the animals for therapy with seniors.
Many kids already perform community service with their families or scout troops. Is there something different about volunteering in the context of school?
Our service learning program integrates volunteer work with classroom instruction. Before each trip to the community site, students discuss plans and goals for the visit. Students working at the elementary school prepare a lesson. Those who are cleaning creeks may research pollution. After the visit, we help them reflect on their experience and evaluate how it went. Planning, evaluating, revising-these are all skills they need to succeed in life.
How can parents help their children benefit from community service the way you do?
Reflection is everything. Our children don’t glean information from experience the way other children do. So we encourage them to reflect on what they’ve experienced, and to talk about how it relates to who they are. Often, the best reflection takes place in the car on the way home. Ask your child how helping out that day made a difference. What worked out well, and what didn’t? What can he improve on? Also, help your child see the larger picture-how his actions make a difference in the community.
Before our children begin their volunteer work, they design and implement projects that combine their talents with the needs of the chosen organizations. You can do this with your child, too.
Our program is also successful because we make a year-long commitment. When things go wrong, our kids have to find ways to make it better. It’s a valuable lesson.
To learn how your school can develop a service learning program, visit servicelearning.org.